Research Project


Found and Lost in Tradition: Mythistories of Confucianism – Mantic and Divinatory Themes

Prof. Dr. Lionel Jensen
University of Notre Dame, East Asian Languages and Cultures
Research stay: January – July 2011

Lectures at the IKGF:

  • Subversive Mythology: The Sensory and the Spectacular in the Cults of Zhu Xi, Tuesday lecture, May 3, 2011.
  • The Mantic and the Metaphysical: The Ethnopoetics of Zhu Xi's World Picture, Annual Conference 2011.

Found and Lost in Tradition: Mythistories of Confucianism – Mantic and Divinatory Themes

Jensen's research is identified closely with the intellectual history of "Confucianism"; however, his interests and published work extend from ancient, through medieval, modern and even contemporary topics. Jensen is currently working on Found and Lost in Tradition: Mythistories of Confucianism. Under the rubric of mythistory – historical myths of a virtual rather than a real past that are sustaining of specific textual communities – the book attends to two episodes of tradition invention in early and medieval China disclosing the indecipherability of myth and history in the making of "Confucian" communities of memory formed around the figure of Kongzi and by Zhu Xi (1130-1200). While in residence at the IKGF, Jensen will be completing work on this book manuscript, the middle chapters of which intersect precisely with the mantic and divinatory themes of Fate, Freedom, and Prognostication. These chapters explore the unique cultural ecology of southeast China in the twelfth century, examining the creative tension between the prescriptive (texts and commentaries) and performative (sacrifice and prayer) of Zhu Xi's daoxue. The research focuses on a largely neglected dimension of the work of Zhu Xi, whose classical commentaries constituted the required syllabus for the empire's civil service examinations for nearly six centuries. This area of scholarly oversight is a "religious" section of Zhu's collected literary record devoted to prayer where one finds invocations of, and sacrifices to, the spirits of Kongzi and Mengzi, as well as the great sages of remote antiquity. "Religion" in this instance denotes specific cultic behaviors of spiritual intercession, personation of the dead, sacrifice, shrine and temple worship that punctuated the daily life of the twelfth-century Fujian and Zhejiang. Juxtaposing this everyday record with the "rational" metaphysics of Zhu, the chasm long separating elite from popular cultural studies is bridged by a tacit admission that the bifurcation of religion into high and low registers does not readily agree with the facts on the ground. The research here into the mantic and prognosticative gives breadth to the world of popular belief within which Zhu Xi was raised and reveals a more complex, human philosopher very much embedded in the demons and spirits of a vernacular cosmology that provided the foundation of his philosophy. Most notably, the investigation discloses that the performative frame for Zhu's prescriptive tradition of daotong ("genealogy of the way") was built from the popular rites of spirit possession and commemoration of the dead, thus making his exclusivist claim of transmission of the dao highly resistant to confutation.

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